Baptism & Youth Ministry
Today, I will be attending the baptism of one of our HNC students leading me to reflect a little bit on the role of baptism (whether as infants or as believers) in youth ministry.
Baptism is one of the key sacraments in most Churches, but yet is rarely understood and its significance is rarely discussed as we are often anxious about getting into discussions of whether baptism should be done as infants (paedobaptism) or on a confession of faith (credobaptism). However the Paedobaptism/Credobaptism debate disguises the significance of this act.
When discussing baptism in reference to the Bible most people will either refer to Jesus’ baptism (e.g. Matthew 3: 13-17), the Great Commission (“… go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit …” Matthew 28: 18-19) or examples of baptism in the book of Acts (e.g. the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8). Such New Testament references lead us to arguments about the importance of Baptism because (a) Jesus did it; (b) we are told to do it; and (c) the disciples gave us examples of doing it. Each of which are important but to some extent miss the point of what baptism is about.
To understand more fully what is being represented in baptism, we have to go to Joshua 3 & 4. This is the story of Joshua and the Israelites coming to the Jordan River, having spent years lost in the wilderness following their captivity in Egypt. As the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant reached the Jordan River the water cut off upstream and the Israelites were able to cross over into Jericho safely, into the Promised Land. The Jordan was symbolic, as it represented moving from the wilderness into the fulfilment of God’s promises. This significance was not lost to the Gospel writers who were recording the events of Jesus (a version of the name Joshua meaning ‘the Lord saves’) with whom God proclaims at his baptism that Jesus is God’s beloved son with whom he is well pleased, and who came to fulfil God’s promises of a messiah (rather than of a promised land in Joshua’s time) such as the one made to David through Nathan:
“I declare to you that the Lord will build a dynastic house for you! When the time comes for you to die, I will raise up your descendant, one of your own sons, to succeed you, and I will establish his kingdom. He will build me a house, and I will make his dynasty permanent. I will become his father and he will become my son. I will never withhold my loyal love from him, as I withheld it from the one who ruled before you. I will put him in permanent charge of my house and my kingdom; his dynasty will be permanent.” (1 Chronicles 17:10-14)
Given all this, what are we doing when we are conducting a baptism:
- We are highlighting that the same God who saved the Israelites in the Old Testament, is the same God who was revealed in the life, death & resurrection of Jesus, and is the same God who saves us and works in our lives.
- We are proclaiming that ‘the Lord saves’. As Christians, we believe that through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are saved from a life that ends in death, but rather we have a hope that we will be resurrected, grounded in the resurrection of Jesus.
- We are acknowledging that we are neither captives (such as the Israelites in Egypt), nor are we lost in a wilderness, but rather we have been set free by God and are walking in faith (like across the Jordan) in fulfilment of his promises.
- We are declaring that the baptisee is included in the fulfilled promised, that is that they are included in the kingdom of God (in the same way as those crossing over into the promised land were to be part of the kingdom established there).
In relation to youth ministry, whether our Church conducts infant baptism (paedobaptism) or a believer’s baptism (credobaptism), we have a responsibility to educate the young people on what baptism may mean, the responsibilities and hopes of being part of the kingdom of God and how baptism includes them in the life and work of the Church.
For many young people who feel like they are in a wilderness or have been held captive by peer pressure, mental health issues, baggage from the past etc., then this can be quite a liberating experience, and if they are preparing for baptism themselves can be a proclamation of hope in which they can leave many of the things that have held them back at the other side of the Jordan.